Sing a simple song: International karaoke in Greensboro

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Empty orchestras

by Anthony Harrison

Three young Korean men sat on the couches in one of the medium-sized rooms of Sing-a-Song Karaoke in Greensboro. It was early in the night. One of them, Kevin Hong, smartly dressed and sitting alone on the left couch, sang a dirge-like Korean pop ballad.

Seung Lee, the potbellied owner of Sing-a-Song, had popped in to check and see how they were doing, chatting with them in Korean. The room was dimly lit except for the flashes of LED lights on the floor and walls.

Hong, Andrew Choi and Jun Choi — no relation — enjoyed their time at Sing-a-Song and for the most part are relative regulars.

Kevin Hong (left) croons a K-pop ballad. Andrew Choi (right) begins cueing up another song and Jun Choi contents himself in simply watching. (Anthony Harrison)
(l-r) Kevin Hong, Jun Choi, Andrew Choi. (Anthony Harrison)

“I’ve been coming here for six months,” Hong said.

“I used to come twice a month for the past two years,” Andrew Choi said.

“I rarely come here,” Jun Choi said, casually slumped on the second couch.

They all differed in how long they had been in America. Hong was born here; Andrew Choi immigrated here 10 years ago; Jun Choi moved here in 2013.

They are close friends now, but when Hong said his whole Americanized name, Andrew said, “Really? Kevin? I never knew your American name.”

The songs they chose were all ballads, tending towards the dramatic and almost orchestral with their soupy production.

But the boys were all joking and laughing, having a nice night out on the weekend.

They had different reasons for why they liked singing karaoke.

“You can let yourself go, and you get to know each other better,” Andrew said.

“Yeah, it’s fun to come here and get closer with your friends,” Kevin said. “It’s a go-to place for Koreans.”

As for the best part about karaoke itself, Kevin simply stated, “Stress relief.”

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You can find Sing-a-Song Karaoke near Super G Mart on West Market Street, but the exact location isn’t immediately obvious.

Sing-a-Song is tucked away in Suites 2122 and 2123 of FantaCity International Shopping Center, sharing the space with Holy Kingdom of God Tabernacle, Di Maria Bella’s Hair Salon and a few other businesses occupying the mall. A small, yellow sanSONY DSCdwich board pointing to the left at the end of the florescent and vacant hallway serves as the only indicator of the karaoke joint’s location.

A hand-printed sign on a sheet of printer paper hangs on the door: “We open weekend (Fri, Sat, Sun) from 7:00/ If u need reservation, Please call 575-8219,” scrawled in chisel-tip black Sharpie. Next to that, a view into the suite is blocked from the inside by canary-yellow paper pasted on the windows, featuring clip art of guitars, redheaded singers and ’50s-style rock-and-rollers.

On weeknights, the mall stays open, yet it stands empty, desolate and cavernous. Sterile air conditioning hums quietly, and the sound of a few men chatting in Korean, emanating from another hall in the labyrinth, echoes off the eggshell walls and mottled tile.

On weekend nights, the story changes. FantaCity’s parking lot stays full through the night. People flock to sing English-language karaoke at the grill sharing the space with Sing-a-Song and the other businesses. Kids hang out in the lot. It is a rather happening place, for what it is.

But, seemingly no matter what, you can’t hear Sing-a-Song’s microphones coming from the suite at the end of the hall.

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Empty orchestra.

That’s what karaoke technically means.

It’s a portmanteau of two Japanese words. Kara literally means “empty,” but the tag end — oke — comes from okesutora, which means, obviously, “orchestra.”

Despite the Japanese name, karaoke has a storied history in both the east and the west.

The basic concept behind karaoke —the idea of a person singing a beloved song to a backing track nearly identical to the original recording — has actually existed since the beginning of recorded music. One must assume that, before the ages of radio — let alone television — the desire to see and hear full-fledged performances of popular song drove the masses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries mad. Bands assuaged demand by recording instrumental versions of famous hits, and people could sing along at home.

A show started in 1961 called “Sing Along with Mitch,” while relatively short-lived, contributed somewhat to the history and evolution of karaoke. Viewers at home were prompted to sing along with host Mitch Miller and a male chorus as the lyrics appeared subtitled at the bottom of the screen. The British Invasion put the nail in the show’s coffin in 1964; the show’s main viewership was the 40-and-up set, anyway.

Ironically, Britain aired their own version of show, “Singalongamax,” in the 1980s, hosted by comedian Max Bygraves.

By that time, however, the Japanese had perfected karaoke as we know it.

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Kobe-based drummer Daisuke Inoue lays claim to inventing the karaoke machine. His band used to play backup for people — mostly businessmen — wishing to sing hit songs. One of his favorite clients once asked for his band to travel with him to a conference; Inoue could not accompany the man. He gave him a tape of the band playing instead.

Inoue quickly recognized his little idea could be recreationally viable, so he crafted 11 machines — basically an eight-track tape player attached to an amplifier — and began renting the karaoke machines to bars in the Kobe area.

Needless to say, the idea took flight like a rocket shot straight at the sun.

Karaoke is now big business, not just in East Asia — where it constitutes its own booming culture — but across the globe. Geely Automobiles in China fitted their 2003 Beauty Leopard coupe with an in-car karaoke machine as standard equipment. An entire fleet of cabs in London have similar in-car karaoke systems.

The karaoke movement — Daisuke Inoue’s bright little idea — now brings in upwards of $10 billion a year worldwide.

The drummer-turned-businessman was named by Time Asia as one of the most influential Asians of the 20th Century. Also, he was awarded the 2004 Ig Nobel Peace Prize — a mock award for trivial research and advancement in Nobel-eligible fields— for “providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.”

To celebrate his 59th birthday in 1999, Inoue sang karaoke for the first time.